The Capitoline Museums ☆☆

AD 2C equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, The Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy (Photo by schizoform)
AD 2C equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius

These museums atop Rome's Campidoglio connected by the Tabularium house iconic ancient statues (she-wolf, colossal statue of Constantine, Lo Spinario, Dying Gaul, etc.) and great art by Caravaggio, Titian, and Rubens

Stuffed with iconic ancient statues and mosaics as well as Renaissance and baroque masterpieces by Caravaggio, Rubens, Titian, and Tintoretto, the twinned Capitoline Museums sit on opposite sides of the Campidoglio (Capitoline Hill).

As you stand in the Michelangelo-designed Piazza del Campidoglio atop the Capitoline Hill and face the Palazzo Senatorio in the middle (where Rome's modern mayor still holds court), it is the two buildings to either side that together house the museum.

Since 2000, the two wings been connected by an underground tunnel through the famed Tabularium, the ancient Roman archives that were discovered just beneath the Palazzo Senatorio.

The Palazzo Nuovo

Unless they've changed it yet again, you now have to start with the building on your left, the Palazzo Nuovo half of the museum, filled with ancient sculpture such as the Dying Gaul, busts of ancient philosophers, the Mosaic of the Doves, and the Capitoline Venus.

The Palazzo Nuovo also contains, in a glassed-in portico just off the courtyard against one wall of which reclines the river god Marforio (traditionally one of Rome's famous "talking statues"), the original 2nd-century AD equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, which until 1981 stood on on the central pedestal of the Piazza del Campidoglio out front.

This gilded bronze original had been tossed into the Tiber in antiquity, and when Christians later fished it out, they mistakenly thought it was Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor.

This misinterpretation for centuries saved it from being hacked to pieces as a pagan idol and earned it pride of place in the piazza atop the Capitoline Hill (until it was removed for restoration and—eventually—a copy was stuck there in its place).

That may merely induce a "so what?" shrug, but think about this: How many statues of famous men triumphantly riding horses you've seen scattered in cities around the world? Lots, right?

Well, this statue of Marcus Aurelius is the only ancient Roman equestrian statue to have survived the ages intact, and as such was the inspiration for every single one that came after it, serving as the touchstone for this now-common form of commemorative art.

(If that doesn't do it for you: the modern copy they stuck on the piazza outside was precision-made using lasers; cool.)

The Tabularium connecting the two museums (a peek-a-boo Forum view)

You no longer cross Piazza del Campidoglio to get from one branch of the museum to the other. Instead, you go underground to follow that Tabularium tunnel—diverging down the side corridor for a great view across the Roman Forum—to the museum’s other half, the Palazzo dei Conservatori.

The Palazzo dei Conservatori

The collections in this half have their share of famous antique statuary:

  • The 1st-century Spinario, a little bronze boy picking a thorn out of his foot.
  • The Etruscan bronze She-Wolf, crafted in the late 5th century B.C. (the suckling toddlers were added in the 16th century as a nod to Romulus and Remus).

The real stars of the collection, however, are the paintings.

The museum's second-floor pinacoteca (painting gallery) houses works by Il Guercino, Veronese, Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, Pietro da Cortona, and two by Caravaggio—one of his Gypsy Fortune-Teller works and the scandalously erotic St. John the Baptist, in which the nubile young saint twists to embrace a ram and looks out at us coquettishly.

OK, so the paintings are great. What everybody remembers from this half of the museum, though, is the palazzo's courtyard. This open space is filled with what, all things being equal, probably constitutes the most popular display in the entire place: the oversized marble head, hands, foot, arm, and kneecap of what was once a 12m (40-ft.) statue of Constantine II.

Odds are you've seen dozens of postcards all over Rome featuring cats lazing around on these giant marble body parts (or people posing goofily beside them).

Incidentally, it's not that the statue was hacked up and these bits are all that remains. The rest of the original statue—i.e. the flowing robes out of which these bits stuck—was most likely made of wood and, as such, didn't survive the millennia intact.

Photo gallery
  • AD 2C equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, The Capitoline Museums, Italy (Photo by schizoform)
  • The Palazzo Nuovo, one of the two buildings that make up the Musei Capitolini, The Capitoline Museums, Italy (Photo by Jastrow)
  • The Dying Gaul is one of the best-known and most important works in the Capitoline Museums. It is a replica of one of the sculptures in the ex-voto group dedicated to Pergamon by Attalus I to commemorate the victories over the Galatians in the 3rd and 2nd, The Capitoline Museums, Italy (Photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT)
  • Marble pieces of the colossal Statue of Constantine the Great (AD 312–315), The Capitoline Museums, Italy (Photo by Brad Hostetler)
  • Gilded bronze Hercules from the 2C BC, The Capitoline Museums, Italy (Photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT)
  • Front panel of a Roman sarcophagus representing the four seasons, middle of the AD 3C, The Capitoline Museums, Italy (Photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT)
  • Opus sectile panel of a tiger attacking a calf, early AD 4C, from the basilica of Junius Bassus on the Esquiline Hill, The Capitoline Museums, Italy (Photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT)
  • AD 4C bronze head of Emperor Constantine I, part of a colossal statue, The Capitoline Museums, Italy (Photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT)
  • Self-Portrait (1630) by Diego Velazquez, The Capitoline Museums, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Self-portrait (c. 1500 by Giovanni Bellini, The Capitoline Museums, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • The Tabularium, The Capitoline Museums, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Ancient Roman sarcophagus showing the Calydonian boar hunt, The Capitoline Museums, Italy (Photo © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0)
  • Saint Sebastian (1615) by Guido Reni, The Capitoline Museums, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • AD 2C Roman mosaic showing theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy, from the Baths of Decius on the Aventine Hill, The Capitoline Museums, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
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Free or reduced admission with a sightseeing card

Get into The Capitoline Museums for free (and skip the line at the ticket booth) with:

» more on discounts & passes
How long do the Capitoline Museums take?

Figure spending an hour per museum, plus some time to peek a the Forum, for between two and three hours total. 

The ticket desk closes at 7pm, an hour before the museum itself closes.

Snacks with a view

Don't miss the stunning panoramic views over the Forum from the Capitoline Museums' roof terrace cafe, open 9am–7pm (tel. 06-6919-0564).

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).